It’s a commonplace among historians that in the murky recording studio of medieval imperialism, Alcuin played a wizened Stevie Nicks to Charlemagne’s picky but regal Lindsey Buckingham. I can’t tell you how often some sharp young scholar has commandeered the conference lectern to rail against this tired way of imagining Europe at the turn of the ninth century, yet the metaphor persists, as metaphors do, because they’re the overwrought but ever-tempting self-guided audio tours that help us see beyond the bored security guards in the hushed, carpeted galleries of the past.
Similes, on the other hand, are like Canadian character actors in Sci-Fi Channel Original Movies: they jar you out of pseudo-historical reveries and lodge you unmistakably in the present. Case in point: the Los Angeles Times sent a writer to the Vancouver Olympics, and like Ignatius Reilly pursuing a Big Chief Tablet delivery truck, the King of the Franks followed him:
Besides, I don’t travel particularly well. Me flagging a media bus in a new city is like Charlemagne chasing the Saxons. But OK, whatever. I like the snow.
This curious simile is the brainchild of a reporter who assumes that the reader has some knowledge of medieval history, or at least possesses the basic curiosity required to look up stuff on Wikipedia. Bravo! That puts him ahead of other newspaper writers.
But what on earth does it mean? Is a portly king waddling with comical incompetence after a band of tireless warriors? Does the writer’s pursuit of public transportation take decades to accomplish while leaving headless corpses scattered among once-sacred groves?
I don’t know, but this simile slips from the reporter’s fingers (to quote Charlemagne himself) “just like a white-winged dove sings a song.” Perhaps, like the finest Carolingian poetry, this cryptic reference to Charlemagne is best read allusively, not logically. Otherwise, like a homesick reporter stranded on a Vancouver curb, we’re left to chase mysteries we weren’t really meant to understand.